Christmas is by most measures a joyous time. But to a football fan, one whose calendar is ruled by the schedules of their chosen teams, it is also a rueful one.
For you can see the end of another season from here, just past the glut of bowl games and the ever-tapering docket of the NFL postseason. Then from there, nothing but the long darkness to the next time that mesomorphs collide.
More than most, Norcross’ Thalia Autry feels that coming void, because she is the mother of all football fans. No less an authority than the NFL says so.
“It’s sad. It seems like football season is never going to come back. The summers are the longest,” she said last week.
This is an anxious time, too. Having won her way into an NFL-sponsored contest with her passion for and intimate connections to football, she awaits word on whether she has won a trip to the season’s last game, the Super Bowl.
When the league put out the call for fans to send in proof of their devotion as part of a “Together We Make Football” campaign, thousands responded. Ten finalists were selected to represent the spectrum of the nation’s football lovers, online voters then determined the top five to secure a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York. Voting ended Monday. The NFL will announce the results at playoff time.
The competition was rigorous. A father in Kentucky with terminal cancer reveling in his son’s high school games. A 74-year-old man in Connecticut playing quarterback for a flag football team. A seventh grader in Texas playing despite a congenitally damaged arm. Each of their stories was spelled out in a short, slick video produced by NFL Films.
The video on Autry introduced her as the “quintessential football mom.” She has the credentials. Four sons played the game. One, Anthony, is a sophomore receiver at Georgia Tech on the mend from knee problems. Her youngest, Myles, is a highly recruited senior at Norcross, fresh off a scintillating state championship performance (a 92-yard kickoff return and a 69-yard touchdown reception).
Mommas, do you want your babies to play football? Here is one who will listen to all the discussions regarding the safety of the sport and never once flinch.
“I think football gets a bad rap in that regard,” she said.
“To me, you can’t be worried about the negatives of it because there is so much good in it. It teaches them so many good lessons: The whole team and camaraderie thing; a stick-with-it attitude; getting through hard times. That’s what we need in life, right?”
That was a mother speaking who had two sons — both Anthony and Myles — recovering from knee surgeries at the same time last season.
The essay she wrote that launched her into the contest finals — entitled “Forever Football” — was built around the theme of a single mother asking a game to help escort her sons to adulthood, while enjoying every blessed moment of the process.
“Football, for me, not only served as a ‘partner’ in child rearing, but it also provided a viable basis for exposing life-like scenarios from which I could teach my children important life skills,” she wrote.
“Football was far more than a sport,” Anthony said. “For our family it was like the sport was another family member.”
Initially, Thalia didn’t care about her kids playing games of any kind. She grew up in Long Island the daughter of a highly athletic father who was always watching sports on TV, while all she wanted to watch was cartoons. Resentment bubbled.
But as her first son grew old enough to start making enough noise about playing, she gradually caved. That opened the door for the brothers who eagerly followed, one after another.
Her permission came with a stipulation: There would be no half measures.
“There was going to be a lot of time put into (football), so I told them if they were going to do it, they were going to do it right. So, I was very strict with them,” Thalia said.
“She wouldn’t let us miss any workouts. Everything we did in football she helped. There were times I said I didn’t want to go (to practice), and she’d say, ‘Get up, you’re going to go,’” Anthony said.
“I make everyone in the house so miserable that they make sure they don’t give me any reason to get on their back,” she laughed.
Her fandom was likewise without compromise. At Norcross, she was one of those mothers almost as much a part of the team as any coach. Only a little more flamboyant.
“She’s a little crazy,” laughed Norcross coach Keith Maloof, speaking on her behalf on the NFL video.
Thalia fixed gallons of pregame pasta, affixing a message to every batch. For the state championship game, she whipped up her “No Retreat, No Surrender” pasta.
Every week of the season was measured by the chores she’d do to keep the stadium concession stand profitable. Go shopping on Monday. Clean out the fryers on Tuesday. Stock the sodas on Wednesday.
Friday nights she’d paint her face and laugh and dance with other parents and be that one shrill voice in the stands that, no matter the noise level, would always drill through her sons’ helmets.
“Her voice just breaks through everybody else’s for some reason,” Anthony said.
With her youngest done with high school — and considering offers from near (Tech) and far (Oregon) and in between (Florida State) — Thalia is facing quite a transition with her fandom. She’ll never again be so involved as she was at Norcross. Major colleges generally don’t need parents to volunteer taking tickets at the gate.
More of her time will be her own. “I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life now. Everything that I’ve done for a long time hinged on the kids,” she said.
But those sitting in Thalia’s section at various college stadiums across the land will know she is there, promised the woman who wore yellow pompons in her hair for the Georgia Tech-Georgia game. And her boy didn’t even get to play in that one.
“I’ll be hollering and screaming and dancing,” Thalia promised.
If only the next football season would hurry up and arrive. This fan who helped make football has a reputation to uphold.
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